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Published on 13th June 2018

How to Age Paper and Make Old Maps

When I was a kid, I was lucky enough to have parents who read to me every night.

In general, this is one of the best things you can do for your childʼs development. There are downsides, though. One of them is that your kid is going to end up being super into whatever you choose to read to them about.

My parents read me fantasy novels. This meant that by the time I was fourteen, I had very intense thoughts about Lord of the Rings, and I wanted to be a fantasy author when I grew up.

As you can imagine, this made me very popular in high school.

A few years after I graduated, Game of Thrones came out, and fantasy suddenly became cool. Iʼm told that people these days actually care about the things I spent my adolescence obsessing over, which is why I'm going to teach you how to make medieval maps and manuscripts.

How to Ruin Paper (But in a Cool Way)

Picture an old map. Yeah, you know what I'm talking about. Youʼre picturing yellowed paper and tattered, crumbling edges (possibly with "Here There Be Dragons" scribbled in fading ink in the margins).

There's two ways to get paper to look like that.

1. Wait a while.

Modern paper is made from wood pulp, which contains a compound called lignin. In living trees, it acts like glue, holding the bark and wood together.

In paper, it doesn't really do anything useful. In fact, expensive paper has most of its lignin filtered out. Lignin reacts with light and oxygen, things which I have on good authority are all around us, and slowly turns yellow.

So if you have some time to kill, just take a piece of paper and put it in your windowsill. It might help to point a fan at it. In thirty years itʼll be beautifully aged, like a medieval manuscript.

2. Pour some tea on it.

If you're the impatient sort, you can speed up this process considerably by taking your paper and pouring black tea or coffee on it.

Tea and coffee both contain tannins, which are the chemicals that give them their bitter taste and dark color. Coffee is brown, and tea, believe it or not, is red, but when you drizzle them on a piece of paper, they'll stain it that lovely shade of yellow that we want.

So take a piece of paper. Regular old printer paper will do just fine.

If it looks like this photo was taken in my shower, that's because it was. This project is messy!

Before you stain it, you may want to crumple it up or fold it, if you're going for that "aged map that spent 15 years in an explorer's back pocket" look. Go nuts.

To give it ragged edges, you can just tear it, but itʼs more fun to take a lighter and set it on fire.

Whoooomph.

Crackle crackle.

If you choose to burn your paper, do be safe about it, OK? Do this outside if possible—you know, not like I did—and keep some water on hand in case the fire starts getting a little too excited about being alive.

I recommend folding and singeing the paper before you pour the tea or coffee on. Burning it is the easiest step to screw up, and if you're going to risk ruining your paper, it's better to do it before the time-consuming tea-staining process. 

After you burn it, take some of the ashes and rub them on your paper—itʼll add interesting undertones to the color after you stain it.

Wait, When Do I Get to Draw the Map?

It's up to you whether to draw your map before or after you stain the paper. 

On one hand, it's frustrating to make a mistake drawing after you've already stained it and have to start all over. On the other hand, when you get the ink wet, it will get runny and might even bleed through to the other side of the paper.

Personally, that's a dealbreaker for me. I always stain the paper first, and just do my best to be careful when I ink it later.

Spilling the Tea

Once the edges of your paper are appropriately burnt, go ahead and make some tea or coffee, or even a blend of both. Unsurprisingly, coffee produces a darker stain—good for that medieval parchment look—and tea produces a lighter one, good for an "X marks the spot"-style map, the sort that a steampunk explorer might carry around.

If you use tea, make sure you're using black tea. It contains a higher concentration of tannins than green or oolong tea. Green tea will stain your paper, all right, but won't stain it the right color.

You can apply your mixture to the paper using whatever tools you like. I've used paintbrushes before, but you can also just use a paper towel or a washcloth or the teabags themselves to dab it on.

For the impatient, there are other methods of application, too.

Splort.

Don't utterly soak it, but don't be shy, either. Apply a heavy coating.

Applying it unevenly will make the paper turn out blotchy, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. It can actually look quite pretty.

However you apply your staining solution, at some point you'll need to flip over your paper to get it on both sides.

When you flip it, do so very gently, gripping and lifting two corners simultaneously. Paper doesn't like to get wet, and unless you're very gentle, your paper may decide to punish you by ripping right down the middle.

Once you've applied your mixture, there really isn't that much left to do except wait for it to dry. You can always use a hair dryer to speed up the process, or just leave the paper in the sun.

For a deeper shade of yellow, repeat the staining process. In this example, I stained the paper all over with a coffee/tea mixture, and then dripped pure coffee on it to create a few darker blotches.

Before I actually write or draw on the paper, I personally like to take however much tea and coffee I have left over, mix it together, dump in half a cup of sugar, and then chug it.

This is awful for you, and it tastes pretty bad too, but if you're like me, the massive onslaught of sugar and caffeine will give you the jitters, and shaky hands are perfect for drawing wiggly coastlines and fjords on your map.

Or, you know, whatever you want to draw.

Stay tuned for Part II, where we’ll talk more about designing and inking a believable map.



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